The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

My last two posts were related in a way common in cinema: the first was a review of a film based on a book, and that was followed by a review of a film that was a remake – in another language – of that film. So here’s the first of another duo of reviews, along the same lines. This film too was based on a book, and engendered in its turn a remake. And, to further keep up the link with the previous post, this one is suspense too.

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the legendary Sherlock Holmes, wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902. In a little over a decade, the first film to be based on the book had been made – over 1914-15, Der Hund von Baskerville was made in Germany. Over the years since then, many more versions in many more languages have been made. This one, directed by Sidney Lanfield and starring Basil Rathbone, is arguably the best-known of the English-language versions.

The film begins – very appropriately – with an introduction to the hound. On a gloomy night, across the dark moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire, the howl of the hound echoes. An old man – Sir Charles Baskerville, as we later learn – glances over his shoulder as he pants, running and quivering with fear, away from the hound pursuing him. He runs through a gate and collapses, dead.
A bearded, scruffy man who’s been lurking in the bushes hurries forward and tries to tug Baskerville’s pocket watch, but runs away when someone shouts out to check if all is well.

The scene shifts now to a coroner’s court, where the chief residents of Dartmoor – those who might know something about Baskerville and his mysterious death – are gathered. An inquest is being held, and as the conversation proceeds, we are introduced to the people present. There is Dr Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), who was Baskerville’s physician and friend. Dr Mortimer had examined the body and states that Baskerville died of a heart attack.

He admits that Baskerville had lately been very anxious, and it had been obvious that “something was preying on his mind”. When the coroner asks if Baskerville and confided in him, the doctor is about to reply when his wife (Beryl Mercer) tugs at his coat and gives him a warning look. Dr Mortimer stops, denies it, and reiterates that Baskerville’s death occurred because of a heart attack.

This draws an annoyed reaction from Stapleton (Marton Lowry), who asks why, then, did Baskerville’s footprints look so odd – as if he had been walking on tiptoe back to his house? Dr Mortimer refutes this, saying the footprints suggest Baskerville had been running.
This seems to be building up into a quarrel, but Stapleton is restrained by his step-sister Beryl (Wendy Barrie).

– and yet another resident of Dartmoor jumps into the fray: Mr Frankland (Barlowe Borland). He loves nothing more than litigation – no matter on how flimsy grounds. Frankland insists it’s murder, yells at the others to speak up and tell the truth, and is finally told by the coroner to pipe down, since Frankland was neither there nor had seen Baskerville’s body.

The coroner passes a verdict of death by heart failure, and there the case rests.
We are now finally introduced to the hero of our story, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), who is at home in 221B Baker Street with his friend/associate/biographer Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce), when they see this interesting piece of news in the papers:

(why the ‘death… still a mystery’? Hadn’t a verdict of heart failure been passed? So why call it a mystery?)

Holmes smells a rat, and prophesies that young Sir Henry Baskerville may well be murdered when he arrives in England. Holmes and Watson discover that Dr Mortimer – whose existence they do not yet know of – had visited in their absence. Holmes shows off his intellect by gauging the doctor’s past and present by examining the walking stick the man inadvertently left behind.

These conjectures are, shortly afterwards, confirmed by the reappearance of Dr Mortimer himself. He introduces himself, tells of his connection to Sir Charles Baskerville, says that he will be receiving the soon-to-arrive Henry Baskerville – and suddenly changes tack from what he’d said at the inquest. He insists Sir Charles Baskerville had been murdered.

In addition, Dr Mortimer has something interesting to show Holmes: an old document he’s found, dating back to the 17th century, which is all about the ‘curse of the Baskervilles’.
The scene shifts – briefly – back to medieval England, and to the then-lord of the manor, the wild rake, Hugo Baskerville. Hugo one day kidnapped a girl from one of the farms on his lands and brought her home.
He locked her in his room and went downstairs, where he ate and drank and caroused with his equally rowdy friends.

When Hugo Baskerville and his friends went upstairs to ‘admire’ the girl, though, they found that she had escaped. Hugo set off on his horse in hot pursuit, and his friends followed a little way behind. Along the way, they began to hear a weird howling, and on moving forward, discovered the girl, now dead – and beyond her, the corpse of Hugo Baskerville, his body torn to shreds, and with a hellish hound standing over him.

Ever since, the Baskervilles have feared that they will all be killed by this (apparently immortal) hound.
Dr Mortimer now reveals the reason of his fear: it turns out that, on the night Charles Baskerville died – apparently of that heart attack – Mortimer noticed footprints near his body. The footprints of a hound. He is therefore, scared about what will happen to Henry Baskerville when he arrives. Holmes invites Mortimer to bring the young man to him after he’s arrived.

So the next time Dr Mortimer arrives, it is with the pleasant Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene). Holmes greets him and asks whether he’s noticed anything peculiar ever since his arrival. Two things emerge. The first is this odd, anonymous missive, which was thrown through the cab window on their way from the dock:

And Henry Baskerville admits that one of his boots – a new one, which he hadn’t worn even once – had disappeared from outside his hotel room. Holmes tells Dr Mortimer to tell Baskerville the legend of the hound (which the light-hearted young man laughingly refers to as ‘Ah! The family ghost!’). Holmes assures them that he will look into the matter, and they say goodbye.

The two visitors go down the street, chatting. Holmes and Watson follow, unnoticed, but Holmes notices something: a gloved hand sticking a pistol out of the window of a slow-moving cab, and aiming straight for Henry Baskerville.
Holmes is able to yell and warn Baskverville, but the would-be assassin makes off. Holmes manages to get the number of the cab, and later interrogates the cab driver – only to learn from him that the person who had hired it had said he was the famous detective Sherlock Holmes!

The next day, Holmes and Watson visit Baskerville at his hotel, where they discover that his vanished shoe is back. Instead, another boot – an old black one – has now gone missing. He’s, not unreasonably, pretty annoyed, but this incident only makes Holmes more thoughtful.
Baskerville and Dr Mortimer are leaving for Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor the next day, and request Holmes to come along. But no; he says he has important business he must complete in London. Watson, though, will accompany them and keep sending Holmes regular reports.

…So the  three men: Baskerville, Mortimer and Watson, travel down to Dartmoor and Baskerville Hall, where Baskerville is introduced to the butler Barryman (John Carradine) and his wife (Eily Malyon), both gaunt and unsmiling.

That night, someone slowly and soundlessly tries Watson’s door, but does not enter. When Watson investigates, he runs into Baskerville, who has also heard something. When they go further, they find Barryman, holding a candle to the window. He makes an excuse about making sure the windows are fastened for the night, but the other two men aren’t fooled. After Baskerville sends Barryman off to his bed, they look out, only to see another light shining far out on the moor.

They follow it and encounter the same man who’d once tried to rob the dead Charles Baskerville. Watson fires at him, but misses and he escapes, running off into the wilds. Soon after they hear that awful howling.

There is something definitely going on in Dartmoor – and it just might be spectral.

More happens in the days to come. Sir Henry Baskerville meets Beryl Stapleton and the two fall in love swiftly (though she, at the first meeting itself, tries to encourage him to leave Baskerville Hall and Dartmoor).

It also emerges that Dr Mortimer is an occultist and his wife a medium. One day, while he’s hosting dinner for the local gentry, the doctor persuades Mrs Mortimer to be part of a séance and try to contact the wraith of Sir Charles Baskerville to ask him how he died. Nothing comes of it, though, because just then the hound starts howling out on the moor and Beryl Stapleton is distressed enough to spoil all of Mrs Mortimer’s concentration.

…and one day they meet a dirty peddler who tries to sell them all manner of oddities he carries in a battered suitcase.

What is going on, after all? Is there really a hound that haunts the Baskerville family line, or is someone up to no good? And why, anyway?

What I liked about this film:

Basil Rathbone’s look. I’d thought nobody could look as convincing a Sherlock Holmes (as I’d envisaged) as Jeremy Brett in the brilliant TV series, but Rathbone, with his sharp features and those intelligent eyes, is very Holmesian too. His acting is excellent – as always – but more on that later.

The general air of suspense. The combination – a supernatural horror that haunts succeeding generations of a family, and an obviously human agency (remember the gloved hand with the pistol aimed at Henry Baskerville in London?) – is a good one. Of course most of the credit for that must go to Conan Doyle’s superb story, but replicating that onscreen, and managing to create an eeriness that is close to what is built up in the book, would’ve been a difficult task.

What I didn’t like:

Unfortunately, the essence of Sherlock Holmes as a character – that somewhat ruthless sharpness, the occasional dry wit, the cocaine addiction – is lost in the film. Rathbone’s Holmes is a much more normal human being, jovial in a back-slapping, happy way which just didn’t sit right with me. The worst thing was, Rathbone was actually a very fine actor (the quiet, dangerous cunning he exhibits in The Mark of Zorro, would, for example, have made for a more appropriate Holmes too). I can only guess that his brief here was all wrong – and I’d blame the director for that.

There are some holes in the plot, and inconsistencies. For example, it is never quite explained why Dr Mortimer was so insistent that Charles Baskerville’s death was a natural one even when he thought all along that it was murder – and then went and consulted Holmes about it. Or why Beryl Stapleton kept telling Henry Baskerville, even after they were deeply in love, that he should leave Dartmoor and go away – to London, to Canada, wherever.

Then there’s the message – which Henry Baskerville is sent in London: that never gets solved. Who sent it? Why? (There is an indication, but in light of what finally emerges as culprit and motive, it makes little sense).

Or why, when Charles Baskerville’s death had been put down as a murder, it was still being referred to as a mystery. Niggling little things, but they do spoil the experience a bit.

Comparisons, comparisons:

Down to the nitty-gritty (and the nit-picking!) I have to admit I’m very fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – and The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first I remember ever having read. It’s a great read. And the 1939 film is a great film. Unfortunately, only on its own.

While the film is not anywhere as badly mangled an adaptation of a book as some others I’ve seen, it has unnecessary deviations and digressions from the plot which take away from the story. Take, for example, Beryl Stapleton’s constant attempts to get Henry Baskerville to leave Dartmoor. In the book, there is a very good reason for it. A little convoluted, but still.

Minor spoiler ahead:

There is one scene towards the end where Holmes (who already knows who the culprit is), having killed the hound, traces its footprints back to the small underground chamber where it had been kept. When Holmes pries up the trapdoor and shines his torch down, he sees bones – the remains of the dog’s meals, obviously – and a crumpled cloth. There is nothing there that could be a clue (or nothing, at least, that Holmes later reveals as a clue) – yet Holmes jumps down into the chamber, giving the lurking killer a fine opportunity to slam the trapdoor down and lock Holmes in. Fine detective.

Spoiler over

I can appreciate the fact that a film cannot waste time on explaining every detail that a story can go into, but there were threads here left hanging unaccountably… instead, if Ernest Pascal (who wrote the screenplay) did want to keep the script as taut as possible, he shouldn’t have wasted time on Dr Mortimer’s occultism and that stupid séance – neither has any connection to the book, and actually has very little relevance in the film itself.

The book, I think (and I admit I may be biased) is certainly better than the film. The film by itself is good, suspenseful and generally well-acted, but don’t approach it with huge expectations.

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41 thoughts on “The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

    • :-))) I was just saying that to my husband the other day, when he suggested I should create a separate blog which only focuses on my travels. I said I’d do it if I could accommodate all the many other things I do – maintaining Dustedoff, writing books, doing housework, occasionally writing travelogues – and watching so many movies!

      Do put this near the top of your list, though. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good watch.

  1. Aaaha! I know the next film to be reviewed by you. :-D
    But I won’t give it away. Happy that you’ll be doing it at last.

    • Remember what I said when you guessed correctly what would be the tone of this post, when you were commenting on my last post? ;-) Well, I’ll say it again: you missed your calling, pacifist! You should’ve certainly been a detective.

      Well done. :-)

      BTW, the main reason I reviewed this film was because I wanted to rewatch the one I’ll be reviewing in my next post!

        • @Harvey, Samir: Yes, it IS pretty easy. But thank you for not giving it away. Am going to be watching it soon – tomorrow, if I get the time, so that I can post the review by the end of the week. Am already rubbing by hands in glee at the thought of watching that film again! :-)

        • I do, I do! But this was like Sherlock Homes solving the case of the missing pencil from the pencil box! :-)
          Not only do I think highly of your prowess as a detective but also of your song collection! :-)

      • I know what the next one is too (my lips are sealed) its also been on my to watch list for a while and i think there was even a movie from the 80’s by the same name, though I’m not sure if it was a remake of the 60’s original

        • I watched the 80s one (DImple Kapadia/Khanna as some sort of supernatural being) under the impression that it was a remake of this one. It wasn’t – and I thought it was awful. This, back then when I was a teen and much more tolerant of bilge! ;-)

          Don’t see the 80s one, but this one is certainly worth a watch! Review coming up very soon. :-)

    • Thank you!

      I love book-film comparisons too, but unfortunately, very few films have so far stood the test. Perhaps the worst adaptation I have ever seen was the Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudiced (though perhaps I was even more disappointed there because I love the book). Far From the Madding Crowd was a good adaptation. I liked Where Eagles Dare too, only I later discovered that Alistair MacLean wrote the book after he’d written the screenplay for the film.

        • Doordarshan used to telecast english movies late night on weekends during the 90s. I caught the begining of some version of Wuthering Heights and switched off because the Cathy portrayed there was not like I envisaged.

          • I remember Doordarshan showing English films during the mid and late 80s, but I think after Star and Zee entered India, my family switched to them… I do remember seeing a few old classics on TV from time to time, but not Wuthering Heights. One version which I’ve wanted to see stars Laurence Olivier (who, by the way, was also the star in another good adaptation of a book – Rebecca).

        • Hmm. I’m being forced to make an admission here – I have never actually got around to reading Gone With the Wind. *embarrassed blush*

          But your description of the film – ‘epic’ reminded me of another good adaptation, that of Ben Hur.

  2. Ben Hur was a NOVEL too? That’s news to me.

    Not read Gone with the Wind ever? Gasp! hehe.

    How about How Green Was my Valley – another good book/movie combo.

    I did see Rebecca on Doordarshan once. But the effect was spoiled for me because my TV was not up to the mark (ah.. those days when we had to hit the TV on its head to make it work)

  3. Yes, Ben Hur was a novel – by Lew Wallace. Very good too, though it had a lot of superfluous stuff, such as a beautiful daughter of the Sheikh who trained Ben Hur to become a charioteer, and stuff like that. My mother has the novel (this particular edition was published after the film was released, so included some good screenshots in a couple of pages in the middle of the book).

    Haven’t read How Green Was My Valley, though I remember watching the film years ago, and feeling very weepy through a lot of it!

  4. This is one Sherlock Holmes story I really like, though I have not seen the feature film, I have seen the TV version and have read the abridged version of the book. By the way there is a Bengali version of this book, this was an old film, interestingly the doorman of Calcutta’s Metro – MGM’s cinema hall (MGM had set up cinema halls in all the major cities of the country) played a small role in this film. He was chosen because he was very tall, he was quite the centre of discussion when Calcuttans got together and discussed the film.

    • I had absolutely no idea there was a Bengali version of the book too – but that shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess, considering Bangla literature/cinema’s love for detectives – Byomkesh and Feluda included! If you remember the name of the film, do let me know. I’d love to try and lay my hands on the film, just in case there’s a DVD release with subtitles.

  5. nice write up!
    have seen this movie, but remember not being very impressed by it.
    love sherlock holmes, but don’t share the same passion for the films though, except for the BBC series with Jeremy Brett!

    • I agree with you completely, harvey – the Jeremy Brett series is awesome. Just the other day, I was talking to my husband about this film and telling him about Basil Rathbone as Holmes. My husband said, “Somehow, to my mind, the only Holmes that register is Jeremy Brett! He is the Holmes!” And I found myself agreeing – because Brett was the perfect Holmes, and that series was very, very good. I went along to watch the Robert Downey Jr film just because I was being coaxed into it, but hated that film too. :-(

  6. I have seen parts of this movie on Cable TV, but never in its entirety. The next time it comes along, I will try & see it. However, do not make the mistake of watching the recent “Sherlock Holmes”. From its trailer, it looked more like an Indiana Jones or a James Bond movie (& I like Indian Jones & James Bond movies.)

    • The Robert Downey Jr one? I tagged along – most unwillingly – with my husband to watch that one, and hated every minute of it. And yes, I love the Indiana Jones films too (not so keen on Bond, but all right – he’s lukewarm when it comes to my liking the character)… but there’s a certain something one expects of Holmes, and the Downey Jr film was definitely not it. It was blasphemy, or whatever is the cinematic equivalent.

      • I went to watch the Downey Jr (and Jude Law) film for very superficial reasons ;-) I most certainly wasn’t expecting a faithful or even a good adaptation — the trailers were warning enough.

        And you are right — nobody can top Jeremy Brett!

        • Have you seen Jeremy Brett as Audrey Hepburn’s brother in War and Peace? That gave me a start – somehow I associate him so completely with Holmes, that I can’t think of him in any other roles, especially not one so light-hearted! (And I’d just gotten used to him as her admirer in My Fair Lady…)

          • I haven’t seen the film but I completely understand how you must have felt. I saw a picture of Brett that accompanied an article and in the picture he was, you know, just Jeremy Brett and, as you said, that gave me a start :-)

            Some actors are so perfect in one role that you don’t want to see them in anything else. I have decided to never see any other Julian Sands film because for me he is George Emerson. He was youth incarnate in that film; gloriously beautiful, idealistic, and stupid — all at the same time.

            • Ah. I have to admit I’ve not seen Julian Sands as George Emerson… umm. Which film was this? (I am horrid at newer films, you know)! But do tell me – anybody who produced such a memorable performance as that, needs to be watched.
              Frankly, I was a little wary about seeing Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. For me, he will always be Mr Darcy! But yes, he was awesome as King George, too. Brilliant.

  7. None, none at all can top Jeremy Brett! He was brilliant. I have all the series and have seen each one of the episodes several times. It is through this that one can spare a thought for the genius of Dr.Arthur, some the plots are extremely original.

    • You’re so right, Brett was brilliant, and that series itself was superb – even Watson, who ends up being portrayed as a bit of a clown in most other adaptations (including this film, where he’s played by Nigel Bruce).
      BTW, have you read Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes stories? He wrote some excellent terror, mystery, and boxing stories which are really worth a read.

  8. I watched this movie and not very impressed with the Holmes. I totally agree about the part were Holmes get shut-off in the trap. That was not in the book and just makes Holmes look silly.
    The hound of Baskerville was the first full-length Holmes exposure to me. I don’t think any movie could capture the true Holmes.

    Although I was skeptical about Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, I did enjoy the movie. I liked the new take on old Holmes and Watson being more dynamic. It is kind of like Agatha Christie’s veiled reference of Poirot as a counter-point to Holmes. Now, RDJr. is a counter-point to David Suchet (No, no one else can be Poirot I say).

    Despite Holmes being an intense and special character, his treatment of Watson in the books always bugged me. The movie kind of made it more fair for Watson with handsome and dynamic Jude.

    • I suppose I was just prejudiced against the thought of Robert Downey Jr playing Holmes! Actually, that entire Holmes story was very un-Holmesian (though yes: Jude Law was a far better Watson than the usual): the story, scenario, everything was not quite what would appeal to a puritan like me. My husband and my sister’s family were telling me about yet another Holmes version set in the modern, 21st century – that was being aired on TV recently. I don’t watch TV, so didn’t see it, but my sis did say that about the only similarity was that the detective was called Sherlock Holmes.

      Hmm. I think Brett spoilt me.

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